The inhabitants of Bangalore were bewildered last week when a list of 98 (98!) Indian cities eligible for the Central government’s much-publicised smart cities project did not contain the name of their city. Every large city in the country — Mumbai, Chennai, Hyderabad and several others — including no less than 20-odd state capitals made it to the list. Not India’s technology capital, though. Sure enough, Bangalore’s absence set off a political war of words between the BJP-led government at the Centre and the Congress-led government in Karnataka, with each blaming the other for the miss. The lost chance to be one of the 100 Indian cities to get an infrastructure lift, backed by technology, points to an utter lack of leadership — political, bureaucratic or corporate.
As it happened, the news about Bangalore’s absence from the smart cities project list came at a time when the city had completed a five-yearly election for its civic body — the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike, or BBMP. The BJP, which has reigned for the last decade, won a majority again, while the Congress came second and Janata Dal (S) came third. Now, the political parties that have come second and third are all set to forge an alliance to rule the BBMP. This is being done at the behest and with the support of the Congress leadership in Delhi. It is worth noting that the state-level leaders of the two parties — Siddaramaiah of the Congress and H.D. Deve Gowda of the JD(S) are sworn enemies, even though they have been friends in the past.
Will this coalition make a difference to Bangalore’s 10 million harried citizens? Not a whit. In the past, the BJP had the BBMP under its thumb for a whole decade, but did zilch for the city. The Congress-JD(S) combine, if it takes over, will similarly do nothing other than create a spectacle with its inevitable fights and attempts to corner a greater share among the spoils of power. After all, Bangalore, Karnataka’s only economic centre and a flourishing one at that, is a cash cow where every imaginable type of mafia — from garbage to land and sand to water — flourishes. A lot of money is up for grabs for any party taking over power. So why allow a little technology (such as a smart city scheme) to get in the way and rob politicians and bureaucrats of their share in the loot? “Bangalore is a cash cow and corruption is the single most important reason why Bangalore was not allowed to qualify for a smart city project,” says R.K. Misra, a smart cities expert who had a hand in drafting New Delhi’s smart cities agenda.
Coming to the smart cities project, Chief Minister Siddaramaiah could have easily directed officers to ensure that Bangalore met the criterion to get included in the list. Instead, Siddaramaiah has trademarked a state of pandiculation — an act of stretching and yawning — while his government dithers. As for the lazy bureaucrats in Karnataka, they insisted that Bangalore did not qualify for the smart cities project, a line parroted even by Minister for Transport Ramalinga Reddy, who is also the Bangalore district in-charge. “As per guidelines, Bangalore was not eligible to apply,” he said. Mumbai enlisted Navi Mumbai, while Chennai, Hyderabad and a host of other cities such as Ajmer, Moradabad and Salem qualified, but neither of Karnataka’s two biggest cities — Bangalore and Mysore — appeared on the list. Both scored low on the parameters set by the ministry of urban development, such as an e-governance track record, timely auditing of civic body accounts and so on. “It is a shame that Bangalore, despite its fit, was one of the few state capitals that did not meet the norms,” said Arun Anantharaman, who works with a multinational.
If corrupt politicians and lazy bureaucrats are the twin curses, Bangalore’s IT industry too has quietly abdicated its role of goading, reprimanding and even driving administrative change in the city. Wipro’s Azim Premji is acting restrained these days, Infosys’s Narayana Murthy is taking his retirement seriously and Nandan Nilekani has gone all passive. The city is sorely missing an authoritative voice.